The Browns’ (Warped) Calculus

Yesterday the Cleveland Browns traded star running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 first round draft pick. Given the Colts’ current roster, the pick is likely to fall in the 20th-24th range.

The franchise made what it believes is a strategic trade that will benefit the team in the long run. The thinking seems to be that the team as currently composed cannot contend for a Super Bowl. Former first round pick Brandon Weeden has clearly been a bust, and the roster lacks any other quarterbacks with potential.

The offense has struggled mightily in its first two games, scoring only 16 points in two losses. Starters at wide receiver, quarterback, and both guard spots are well below league-average caliber. Richardson is a tremendous player, but he’s fought mightily even to get past the line of scrimmage on most runs.

Coupled with these empirical observations about the current season are two deeply-held philosophical beliefs by the front office: you need a franchise quarterback to win in this league, and drafting running backs in the first round makes little sense. Hence, Weeden and Richardson don’t fit into the team’s plans, 2013 is a wash, so the Browns should prepare for 2014 and beyond.

We shouldn’t fault the Browns for making a short-term sacrifice with the long game in mind, necessarily. Successful teams do this often, particularly in a sport where roster turnover is frequent and players’ shelf-lives are exceedingly short.

The necessity of a rebuild, however, isn’t quite as apparent as it may seem. For all of the talk of the team’s awful drafting, the Browns under Tom Heckert actually nabbed some really good players. There is a winning core in place: a phenomenal defensive front seven highlighted by stud pass rusher Barkevious Mingo and nose tackle Phil Taylor. Joe Haden is one of the league’s best cover corners, and TJ Ward is an oft-injured but productive strong safety.

Offensively, the team is a QB, guard, and possession receiver away from making a huge jump. Next year, Josh Gordon, Alex Mack, Jordan Cameron, and Joe Thomas could all legitimately become top-3 players at their positions.

This type of talent won’t be around forever. A rebuild essentially puts Thomas, Ward, and Haden out of their primes during the contention window, with Mack not far behind.

Alas, the NFL is a league in which every front office believes itself to be comprised of true geniuses, men who must bring in “their” system, “their” coaches, and “their” players. Ironically, these supposed football intellects can’t figure out a way to win with existing talent.

Perhaps, though, the rebuild will work. In 2015 and beyond maybe the Browns win a division title or two and even make some deep playoff runs. In this case, I believe the Browns will still have made a mistake.

Since the team’s return to Cleveland in 1999 they have made one playoff appearance; the last time they even flirted with a berth was in 2007. Every 2-3 years there’s been a new regime, a new system, and a new supposedly surefire path to success. Each time there was a tacitly acknowledged contract: the fans stay patient for a few years and take some lumps. In the process, they’ll get to watch talented young players improve and grow together. Soon after, the team will do everything possible to win now.

That contract has been violated. We were patient; we’ve sat through losses with little complaint. But I feel that, for many fans, this is the breaking point. Despite a chance to contend, we raise the white flag yet again.

Why should I buy NFL Sunday ticket to watch these games? Why should Clevelanders pay $200+ per ticket in a down economy for it?

I’ve always had strong loyalty to the team; being a Browns fan was an emotional commitment. Despite the losses, I trusted the team’s intentions, and proudly wore my Browns merchandise around Manhattan. That is no longer the case.

At some point, the team has to at least pretend that it cares about winning now.

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